Wine competition results are called into question

October 7, 2009

 

altAs you may have heard, a new study calls into question the results of wine competitions.

All those gold medals that wineries boast about may not mean much, according to the study by Robert Hodgson, a retired statistics professor who now owns his own winery.

Hodgson compared the results in three wine competitions and discovered that gold medal winners in one contest came up empty handed in the others 84 percent of the time.

The three competitions drew 2,440 wines, and 47 percent of them won gold medals – which is an amazing statistic in itself. Either the competitions are very loose with gold medals or we are absolutely swimming in outstanding wine.

But I digress. Hodgson concludes that winning the medals is more a matter of luck than wine quality. He speculates that either the wine samples sent to competitions by a winery vary in quality or the judges are unreliable.

I would tend to believe the latter, based on what I know of wine competitions. Judges in a major competition may literally taste hundreds of wines in the course of a day. Of course, they don’t swallow that wine, or they would wind up in detox centers at the end of a competition. But how many tastes would it take to fatigue one’s taste buds? Can a judge really discern subtle differences between the 150th and 151st wines?

The problem is even more acute in smaller competitions, because qualifications of the judges are suspect. I know this from personal experience, because I’ve been asked to judge competitions, based solely on the fact that I write a wine column.

The invites were easy to understand. The competition organizers needed a certain number of judges, and wine journalists make excellent choices because they are likely to write about the experience, which helps promote the event. The better known ones (obviously not myself) can lend prestige to the competition.

I gracefully declined the requests, pointing out that I write about the business of wine, and am unqualified to judge wines. One recruiter argued the point, saying it didn’t make any difference – the other judges would make up for any crazy ratings I might come up with. I wonder if he gave that pitch to the other judge prospects as well.

A friend who is a wine maker at a large Central Valley winery urged me to take the University of California at Davis wine sensory course. That would qualify me to judge, he reasoned, and getting on the judging circuit is fun.

I didn’t follow his advice, primarily because I didn’t have the several hundred dollars in tuition the course required. But I also had other misgivings.

I’m sure the UC Davis course would give me the ability to pick out all those cherry, blackberry, leathery, grassy, citrus, licorice tastes and aromas in the fermented grape juice. That knowledge would accomplish two things: it would make it harder for me to enjoy an inexpensive glass of wine, and it would separate my palate from those of the vast majority of wine drinkers.

Most wine drinkers, like me, haven’t taken college level courses in evaluating wine. They buy wine mostly in grocery stores, try different labels and pick favorites. It might be a $30 Napa cabernet or a $2 bottle of FoxBrook.

But the stuff they like, they will likely keep buying, because to them, it’s good wine. And they are the ultimate judges: they vote with their wallets.

That’s why the whole concept of a wine competition may ultimately be bogus. The elite competitions, those that carry the most prestige and get the most press, have panels of highly qualified experts who are tasting characteristics of the wine that you and I probably never notice.

The purpose of the exercise is to give out hardware (47 percent!) that the wineries can hype on the retail shelves. What does that mean for the consumer? It means that a group of three to five judges, who evaluate wine far differently than the every day wine shopper, went through a couple hundred sips of wine, and decided which wine was the best – to them; on that particular day.

So, my advice to consumers is this: Take the advertising hype about awards with a grain of salt. If you are curious about the wine and it falls within your budget, buy a bottle. Make your own judgment. The gold medal is meaningless if you don’t like the wine.

And for the sake of your budget, avoid learning how to pick out flaws in wine. It just ratchets up the price you will have to pay to buy an acceptable bottle of wine. (Hmmm …. Is that a grassy note in my Franzia Sangria?)

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